Transition Makes a Perfect Fit
Military engineers transitioning out of the service should consider an opportunity in the field of higher education facility management—a career that demands many of the same skills earned in uniform while presenting fresh challenges they are well prepared to overcome.
By Col. Jack T. Baker, Ph.D., P.E., M.SAME, APPA, USAF (Ret.)
Author’s Note: I write this article as a follow up to a “From the Editor” column in the March/April 2014 issue of Facilities Manager (the journal of the Association of Physical Plant Administrators—APPA). Don’t let the organization’s name confuse you, APPA is the association for higher education facility managers/leaders and represents all aspects of facilities management: planning, design, construction, operations and maintenance, and facility services. The column I’m referencing was in regards to a Transition Workshop & Job Fair hosted by the Society of American Military Engineers in which APPA participated.
In short, the article suggested that retired, or retiring, military engineers should consider a second career in higher education facilities management and that higher education organizations should consider military engineers as a pool of talented candidates for facility management positions. I couldn't agree more with both sides of the equation. I would go one step further: The same can be said for non-commissioned officers who are leaving the service. Higher education facility organizations need their skills as well. -J.B.
As a retired Air Force Civil Engineer and now a long time “O&M Chief” for the University of Maryland, I am convinced higher education will find excellent facility leaders in the military and that military engineers could not ask for a better new career. I would caution, however, that both need to better understand what the other has to offer. There are misconceptions out there. There is a lack of information that hinders the transition. The two entities often speak different languages and there are some perceptions that just don’t represent the facts.
I have often heard, and still hear, that the military just does not, will not, or cannot understand how the “higher education enterprise” operates. That higher education doesn’t run like the military. That you can’t get things done in higher education by edict. That it is a much more collaborative, consensus building environment than the military. I have been told we wouldn’t understand what it takes to deal with the academic side of the enterprise. That we wouldn’t understand the role research plays in today’s university. And that the faculty expects the service side of the institution to solve their problem, not tell them what rules need to be followed. The most disconcerting thing I hear is that we wouldn’t understand the need for customer service and that we would not appreciate that Universities need excellent facilities, since higher education must compete for star faculty and students.
On the other hand, I appreciate that many military engineers (maybe all engineers) can have difficulty describing their experiences in terms that make sense to the “real world.”
I will never forget what the search committee at the University of Maryland thought about my Pentagon assignment. It was simultaneously described as being so far far away from the real world, that I wouldn’t understand “them.” Others equated it to “getting coffee for generals.”
In fact, military engineers do know what it takes to provide excellent facilities management. They can, and do, make the transition successfully.
EXPERIENCE PAYS OFF
As Rear Adm. Mike Johnson, USN (Ret.), former Navy Chief of Civil Engineers and now Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities at the University of Arkansas, explains, leadership is an invaluable skillset military engineers bring to the fold. “Military engineers know how to lead and motivate people,’ he says. “When the military shifted to the all-volunteer service, we found that we were in competition to attract, and retain, the best. The military facilities professional understands the human relations side of the facility management equation.”
The work of facilities management is the same across the globe. While much has changed over the last 40 years, I am still dealing with the issues that I dealt with as a second lieutenant in the Air Force: productivity, unhappy customers, and broken pipes. We all deal with deferred maintenance, with customer complaints, and too hot or too cold calls (on the same day, in same office, by different people). We encounter overdue work orders, costs too much, takes too long impediments;, personal issues, emergencies, limited resources—and never a dull moment. Furthermore, every facility manager faces similar challenges for the future. The issues of sustainability, energy use and conservation, the operation of ever more complex buildings, the need to support clean rooms and laboratories, and the old standbys: budget reductions, an aging work force, and strategic planning but the need for a tactical focus (yes military terms that have universal use). We will all build LEED buildings, with high-end HVAC controls, green roofs, and sophisticated systems—but then struggle to maintain them.
Most importantly, we all will deal with politics, inside the organization as well as those in our communities, state and nation). We all face unfunded mandates, code requirements, and input from local, state, and in some cases, national legislators. The issues surrounding public sector construction funds are just like those surrounding the MILCON program. I still remember in the service offering the buttons off my uniform to get a much needed project funded. It didn’t work then; it hasn’t worked at the university either.
Dealing with an unhappy physics professor is no different than dealing with an unhappy squadron or wing commander. We are all in the same boat. However, while we are in the same business, there is no doubt there are some unique characteristics in the higher education environment.
- When does the 10:00 a.m. meeting start? Remember when you gave your professor 10 minutes, it’s still the same.
- No doesn’t really mean no, it just means it’s not the right time to suggest it. Nothing ever goes away.
- Be prepared for a lot of committee meetings, but to be honest it’s no different than getting the coordination of all four digit offices, then the all three, and then the two.
Notes Col. Dave Reynolds, USAF (Ret.), formerly an Air Force Civil Engineer officer and now Associate Vice President for Facilities at the University of North Texas: “there are differences in culture, processes, and there are new challenges—but the same foundation.”
There also are some must “do’s” if you are going to enter the world of higher education for facilities management. Universities are looking for people who can:
- Solve problems and get things done, but understand things will try to be committeed forever.
- Understand that facilities are there to support the mission (in this case, teaching and research).
- Can work across “departments,” such as Procurement, Environmental Safety, Student Affairs, and yes, even more importantly, within facility management, since engineers, the trades, and all people have different skills, backgrounds, expectations, and needs.
- Understand higher education is in competition for the best faculty and students. Just like the services are looking for the best soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
When the Search Committee confronts you with all these issues and asks why you want this job, tell them you have been in the facilities business for a long time and none of this is new.Tell them you love the work—or you wouldn’t have lasted. Tell them that you understand you have to be able to articulate the needs of your organization and communicate with many different constituencies. Don’t tell them you have managed projects. Everyone does that. You don’t need to let your hair grow anymore but you do need to focus on your ability to work with a diverse workforce, your experience and ability to manage a stressful environment (not a battlefield), and that you have the ability to develop a trust with those you work for.
The transition is easier than many may think and I encourage both sides of the equation, colleges and universities and transitioning servicemen and women, to get to know what the other has to offer.
A FINAL THOUGHT
I would be remiss if I didn’t share what I have found to be my most meaningful experience in recent years. I attended college in the 1960s, a time when the military was persona non grata on college campuses.
Over the years I have certainly read about, and experienced, how some in the “academic enterprise” looked down upon or did not welcome those of us in uniform.
I will state unequivocally that the environment has, and is, changing, most certainly at the University of Maryland. Military veterans are welcomed and celebrated. We have opened a Veteran’s Center. We celebrate Veteran’s Day with an impressive program at the Campus Chapel. Veterans are recognized at sporting events. Veterans and members of the military are part of the family. Misconceptions remain, there are still some who would prefer not to have a military at all—but most manage to separate the warrior from the war, certainly a different relationship from that of the Vietnam experience. May we continue that way.
Thank you all military and civilian facilities personnel, in all capacities, in all organizations, for your service. It’s a tough, thankless job, but one that is so important.